26 Surprising Statistics About Welfare in America

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Most of us are aware that our country has a “welfare” system. But it’s not the same as what it once was. After the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, ongoing cash payments to the needy, summed up in the term “welfare checks,” were changed and the program gained a different name (more on that below).

Then, as now, there were also other forms of public assistance. These programs often get lumped together under the term “welfare.” It is likely that you have a mental image of the type of people that are on these programs.  However, your mental assumptions could be totally wrong if you have never taken the time to look into the system.

What Public Assistance Programs Are Being Used?

1. Food Stamps

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides food stamps to approximately 39 million Americans as of May 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number of Americans on this program fluctuates over time but over the past few years, the number of people on food stamps has been dropping.

2. Medicaid Benefits

This program helps to provide free or low-cost medical care to some individuals in need. According to a Medicaid estimate, over 67 million individuals were enrolled in Medicaid as of May 2018. That equates to roughly 20% of the population.

3. Child’s Health Insurance Program

The Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a separate program from Medicaid and provides health care benefits to children who do not have other sources of health care coverage. The plan covers a variety of things including dental care and regular checkups as well as hospital visits and testing.

According to Medicaid’s 2017 Statistical Enrollment Report, 9.4 million children were enrolled in CHIP that year.

4. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

TANF is what used to be referred to as “welfare.” It’s cash payments for needy families for up to five years (some states have shorter periods of eligibility).

TANF provided income to approximately 2.5 million recipients in 2017. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the median TANF benefit in 2017 was $432, a figure that’s been eroding since welfare reform in 1996 when you account for inflation.

Many states limit the number of months a family can use TANF for. For example, the lifetime limit in Georgia is four total years that can be used either consecutively or in monthly pieces.  When a family runs out of months, it will be removed from the program.

5. Housing Assistance

Three major programs make up the assistance offered to roughly 9 million people by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Housing choice vouchers allow more than 5 million low-income people to use vouchers to help pay for homes in the private market. The public housing program is the second type of housing assistance and it shelters about 2.1 million people.

Some 2 million people benefit from the Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance program, the third type of housing assistance. PBRA contracts with private apartment owners to rent units to low-income families.

6. Supplemental Security Income

Supplemental Security Income is administered by the Social Security Administration and gives cash assistance to the elderly, blind and other disabled people who have limited income and resources.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, approximately 8.2 million people received SSI benefits in June 2018. About 86% of these recipients are blind or otherwise disabled.

Who Is on Public Assistance?

Despite the economic recovery over the past 10 years, many people still cannot make ends meet. The answers to who is actually relying on welfare may surprise you.

7. Total Number of People on Assistance Programs

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2012, approximately 52.2 million people used government assistance of some kind. The most used programs were SNAP and Medicaid.

The number of people relying on assistance programs has grown since then. More than 42 million people used food stamps in 2017 and more than 67 million people were on Medicaid in May of 2018.

8. Which Gender Receives More in Government Assistance?

Women are generally more likely to use public assistance than men. In 2016, the SNAP program was used by both men and women, but 57% of the users were female and 43% male.

Additionally, in 2013 women were more likely to use Medicaid than men. Women made up 58% of users and men made up 42%.

9. Are Children on Welfare?

Yes. Many children rely on welfare to survive. According to Child Trends, approximately 2.3 million children received TANF benefits in 2015. Typically, younger children are more likely to be recipients.

10. Does Education Affect How Likely You Are To Be on Welfare?

It appears that the more education you complete, the less likely you are to be on welfare. According to the U.S. Census, 37.3% of people who did not graduate from high school received means-tested benefits (Medicaid, SNAP, housing assistance, SSI or TANF) in 2012.

More than 21% of high school graduates and 9.6% percent of individuals with one or more years of college participated in one of the major means-tested government assistance programs.

11. Which Races and Ethnic Groups Are on Food Stamps?

The following information is based on a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

  • 38.9% of food stamp recipients were white (not Hispanic).
  • 24.9% of food stamp recipients were African American (not Hispanic).
  • 11.8% of food stamp recipients were Hispanic.
  • 2.8% of food stamp recipients were Asian (not Hispanic).
  • 1.1% of food stamp recipients were Native American.
  • 12.8% of food stamp recipients did not disclose their race or ethnic identity.

12. Can Single Parents Be on Food Stamps?

Yes. In 2015, single parents made up 59% of food stamp recipients. In fact, a household headed by a single parent is the most likely to be on food stamps.

13. Do Families Rely on Food Stamps?

Many families are using SNAP as a way to keep food on the table. In fact in 2017, close to 70% of SNAP users were families with children.

14. Are Immigrants on Public Assistance?

No undocumented residents are able to qualify for any government assistance. But most legal immigrants are able to use assistance benefits that they qualify for.

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that 45% of immigrant households received food assistance and 46% received Medicaid. Only 6% received cash assistance.

15. Are Elderly People Receiving Food Stamps?

As of 2015, 4.8 million seniors were using the SNAP program. That represents 11% of all SNAP users.

Where Are Aid Recipients Located Geographically

Each state’s population has different usage rates for public assistance. The amount of aid varies greatly, but typically states with higher populations have higher welfare expenditures, according to a study by GOBankingRates.

16. Which States Have the Most Food Stamp Recipients?

As of 2017, California had the most food stamp recipients in the country, with more than 4 million people receiving SNAP benefits. Keep in mind that California also has the largest population of any state, with close to 40 million residents.

In contrast, Wyoming had the lowest number of food stamp recipients, with only 32,671 participants in 2017. Wyoming also has the smallest population of any state, charting just 573,720 residents in 2017, according to World Population Review.

17. Which States Have the Highest Percentage of Households on Food Stamps?

When you look at food stamp participation as a percentage of a state’s population, the results are more telling. In 2013, Oregon had the country’s highest percentage of households on food stamps.

At a whopping 19.8%, nearly one in five people in the state were using food stamps, according to a report in the Washington Post. California’s rate of participation, in contrast, was less than 10%.

Following closely behind Oregon was Mississippi. Roughly 19% of the population was on food stamps in the southern state. Again, almost one in five people were using food stamps there.

Most of these high numbers of food stamp reliance are associated with a high level of unemployment in the state. Fewer jobs lead to more people seeking out food stamps.

18. Which States Have the Lowest Percentage of Households on Food Stamps?

In 2013, Wyoming had the lowest percentage of food stamp users. Only 5.9% of the population relied on SNAP, according to the Washington Post.

North Dakota had the second-lowest usage with only 7.6% of people utilizing the SNAP program.

19. How Much Does Government Spend on Public Assistance?

In 2015, the government spent $19.9 billion on TANF, which was 0.54% of total federal spending, according to the nonpartisan Econofact.org. The federal government spent $76.1 billion on SNAP, a little more than 2% of total federal spending, and it spent $52.3 billion on SSI, or 1.42% of federal outlays.

How Much Assistance Are People Receiving?

20. What Is the Average Value of Food Stamps Per Recipient?

It varies greatly by state, but the average single person in 2018 receives $134 dollars per month. A family of four receives an average of $456 per month. Food stamps are specifically used to help feed people, and the program has strict rules that the money can only be used for food.

21. How Much Cash Assistance Does Each Family Receive?

Again, this varies by state. In 2018, in the median state, a family of three received an average of $447 per month in TANF benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

22. How Much Does the Average Medicaid Recipient Get?

The average person enrolled in Medicaid in 2014 received $5,736 in benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Some groups had significantly higher payouts. Elderly recipients of Medicaid received an average of $13,063 in medical benefits. Additionally, individuals with disabilities received an average of $16,859 in healthcare benefits.

23. What Are the Total Payouts Per Year for SNAP?

Food stamp payouts per year vary widely by state. The total payout is usually determined by a cost of living analysis in the area. In 2017, the national average monthly payout for a food stamp recipient was $125.83, which equates to approximately $1,500 of benefits each year.

Other Information About Welfare

24. How Do Welfare Recipients Spend the Money?

Many people have a negative picture of welfare recipients because they imagine that recipients frivolously spend their money on extravagant expenses or non-essential items.

However, a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013 showed that families receiving some form of means-tested public assistance from food stamps, Medicaid, TANF, public housing or SSI spent most of their budget on housing, transportation and food. Food expenditures came out to about $6,500 a year, or $124 per week. That’s about $33 per person for the average family.

25. How Long Do People Stay on Welfare?

The point of most assistance programs is to help people through hard times. Everyone hits difficult points in their lives, and the purpose of aid programs is to help people get back on their feet.

Some programs, such as SNAP, have time limits. For example, if you are an unemployed childless adult, then you can only use food stamps for three months unless you are working more than 20 hours per week or participating in a training program. However, some states allow recipients to apply for waivers to increase their usage limits.

According to a 2015 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average length of time a household stays in assisted housing is roughly six years. Obviously, this will vary by household, but this is the average. Elderly people tend to stay in assisted housing for longer — an average of nine years — and families with kids averaged four years.

The length of time will vary by case, but it is important to note that some states have time limits on benefits or other stipulations intended to help get people out faster.

26. What Is the Poverty Line?

In order to qualify for welfare assistance, your income needs to be below the poverty line. Each year the federal government releases a figure that it states as the federal poverty line. For 2018, the federal poverty guideline for a family of four is 25,100 in the 48 contiguous states and DC.

The realities of public assistance programs can be difficult to see from the outside, but they often offer a lifeline to people in need.

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  1. Illegal immigrants can receive Housing Assistance under the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher as long as there are legal immigrants in the household. The calculations for the subsidy are pro-rated, subtracting a certain amount of the assistance for each undocumented family member.

  2. Ellen Broadwater says:

    The article states that “No undocumented residents are able to qualify for any government assistance”, UNTIL they give birth to a child. Once they have a child born in US, that child (and family) qualify for all benefits…the taxpayers, i.e. government also pay for the hospitalization for the birth of the child of the undocumented immigrant. Check how much California pays each year for health care of undocumented immigrants. It’s astonishing.
    Illegals are very costly to our economy.

    1. Thank you for your comments and your viewpoint.

  3. Diversity Visa recipients are abusing the welfare system. The majority of Diversity Visa winners from East African countries are said to be claiming disability and living off Social Security Disability payments in public housing complexes.

    1. Maybe they truly need the money. Of course it’s also possible that the East African countries need to crack down on their qualifications for some of those government assistance programs. It’s hard to say without knowing each individual’s circumstances.

  4. “The average person enrolled in Medicaid in 2014 received $5,736 in benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some groups had significantly higher payouts. Elderly recipients of Medicaid received an average of $13,063 in medical benefits. Additionally, individuals with disabilities received an average of $16,859 in healthcare benefits.”
    Unfortunately what this data does not show is just how much of these total “benefit” payouts did not go to the “average person” but instead went to the Managed Care Organizations, or MCO’s (MCO’s are mostly large insurance companies), that run the Medicaid program. Medicaid is now 80% managed care where services are routinely limited or outright denied. These Medicaid MCO’s receive federal and state dollars in lump sum capitation payments (per head/individual). The MCO gets to keep this money whether there is over or under utilization, essentially incentivizing these big companies to routinely lemon drop the sickest or highest users of care.

  5. luis f martinez says:

    The average person who leans to the right should read this report. Many people complain about ” welfare” but have no idea how it works. Undocumented people are said to be on food stamps, but there are rules which prevent them from qualifying on this and other programs.

    1. I do think there are plenty of people from other ethnic groups that abuse the system too, if that is what you are implying. You have a good point. Everyone should find out more before making judgement.